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Korg MS Series

Revisited By Alex Ball
Published May 2024

Korg MS Series

Korg’s MS range contains some bona fide classics — and is much more extensive than you might imagine...

In late 1977 Korg’s senior engineer Fumio Mieda led a plan to create a series of affordable synthesizers that would help make or break the company. Working late nights and even sleeping in the office to keep the wheels turning, the project was completed by the end of the Spring of 1978. In the 46 years since their release, the products in this series have had a significant impact via a broad and surprising array of styles, and one particular family member has become so desirable that Korg have been producing it again since 2014.

Before The MS

As with most things Korg, the company’s inception is unusual. Founder Tsutomu Katoh was not musical and didn’t have particular plans to start a music company, but his keen eye for business and willingness to take risks meant that after a fateful encounter, the company was born.

Having served on a submarine during World War II, Katoh subsequently scraped a living with whatever he could get his hands on: car parts, electrical wiring, selling newspapers and in construction. It was whilst he was doing the latter in the 1950s that he was offered a role managing a club, the Minx, in the Kabukicho area of Shinjuku in Tokyo. This role resulted in Katoh being directly in contact with scores of musicians who passed through his club and one particular musician, Tadashi Osanai, approached him with a proposal. Osanai was an accordionist and had discovered the Wurtlizer Sideman rhythm machine, which allowed musicians like himself to carry around a box that provided drums and percussion without needing to hire another player. Osanai believed he could make a better version of the Sideman and so asked Katoh to finance the project. Katoh agreed and in 1963 they set up shop next to the Keio railway line. As their initials were also ‘K’ and ‘O’, the name was begging to be used, which is why the company were originally called ‘Keio Gijutsu Kenkyujo’ (‘Keio Research Institute’ in English).

After some development, Osanai’s design was ready and it was dubbed the ‘DA‑20 Doncamatic Auto Rhythm Machine’, with the name being partly an onomatopoeic reference to the sound of the product; don‑ca, don‑ca.

In the late ’60s, after a series of these rhythm machines, Katoh was approached by another individual with an idea that needed funding. Fumio Mieda already had a track record having invented the legendary Uni‑Vibe pedal and also having worked for Teisco. This, perhaps, made the decision easier to make when Mieda introduced Katoh to his idea to create a new kind of electronic organ. The resulting product was called ‘Prototype 1’ or ‘First Prototype’ and, whilst it wasn’t called a synthesizer at the time, it contained a monophonic section that was exactly that.

A second keyboard instrument was then developed and it was called the Keio Organ. For reasons that aren’t quite clear, a portmanteau of Keio and L’Orgue (French for ‘the organ’) was used and the instrument was dubbed ‘Korgue’. Apparently, due to a typo on some printed circuit boards, this was changed to ‘Korg’ to match the mistake, rather than get them reprinted! They then used this name for their products before eventually changing the company name itself from Keio to Korg in the 1980s. For simplicity, I’ll refer to them as Korg from here on in.

Korg’s first production synthesizer was the miniKORG 700 in 1973, and there then followed a prolific five years where a flurry of synths were fired out of their doors; the miniKORG 700S, maxiKORG 800‑DV, 900‑PS, SB‑100, PE‑1000, PE‑2000, 770, M500, PS‑3100, PS‑3200 and PS‑3300.

By late 1977, Korg were weighing up where to go next and the decision was made to produce an affordable series of compact instruments, with the hope being to tap into the market of potential new synthesizer users. This was, of course, the MS series.

The Arrival

Announced with the strapline ‘The Second Generation of Korg Synthesizers’, the range contained precisely three of these. The most affordable member of the trio was the monophonic synthesizer (or MS)‑10. It basically has one of everything: one oscillator, one filter, one amp, one envelope and one LFO. What makes it more interesting than the simple synthesizer it initially appears to be is that there’s a patch panel where the signal path can be reconfigured or interrupted, or where external synthesizers or equipment can be interfaced with the MS‑10. Like Korg’s earlier PS range, the panel was cleverly placed on the right so that the patch cables wouldn’t be in the way of the associated knobs that were on the left.

This instrument was an ideal first synthesizer for fledgling musicians and it was the first synth that Detroit pioneer Juan Atkins owned as a teenager after his grandmother bought him one for Christmas. With its hands‑on panel, Atkins taught himself to create every drum sound he could think of, as well as all manner of new effects. His early demos with the MS‑10 helped him build a reputation and by 1980, he’d joined forces with Rik Davis to form Cybotron, whose influential electro music was fundamental to the evolution of techno.

The second of the three synthesizers in the series proved to be in the Goldilocks zone in terms of price and functionality. The MS‑20 has slowly but surely established itself as one of Korg’s most‑loved synths, which is evidenced by the fact that there have been nearly a dozen official versions of it, countless clones and emulations and, at the time of writing, you can still go out and buy a brand‑new MS‑20, 46 years after it was first released!

The MS‑20 has slowly but surely established itself as one of Korg’s most‑loved synths...

The MS‑20 essentially has twice the functionality of the MS‑10: two oscillators, two resonant filters, two amplifiers (the second is in the patch panel), two envelopes, one LFO and a ring modulator. It also sports a more sophisticated patch panel with a dedicated external signal processing section.

A defining part of the MS sound is the filters. On the MS‑10 and original MkI MS‑20, these were the ‘KORG 35’ (aka ‘Type 35’) design that had been introduced with the PS series the year before. Requiring just a handful of transistors and resistors, this was an affordable and compact solution, but it certainly didn’t have a cheap sound. The KORG 35’s resonance (or ‘peak’) is very extreme and breaks up and distorts in a fantastic way, resulting in a screaming and growling quality. When two are combined in series and configured as resonant high‑pass and resonant low‑pass (as they are on the MS‑20), all manner of sounds are possible from guttural filth, guitar‑like tones, strangely human formants, clangs, bells, womps, belches, squelches and more. This dual HP/LP filter concept was a signature part of the ’70s Korg sound, going right back to their earliest prototypes.

The MS‑20 also has a clangourous ring modulator tucked into the second...

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